Five ways to stay awake at Mass

By Kevin H. Axe| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Prayer and Sacraments

The most important activity in the parish is Sunday Mass. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles has written a lengthy pastoral letter on liturgical renewal to prepare the people of his archdiocese for the Jubilee Year 2000. He stresses in the letter that the Second Vatican Council held the renewal of the liturgy to be central to the life of the church, and the Sunday liturgy is, indeed, the "very center" of the church's life. He also stresses the point that, unlike days of old, the liturgy has to be the work of the whole assembly, not just the priest, the choir, and the liturgy committee.

His letter is timely, and the issue is serious. Poll after poll reports that only about one out of three self-described Catholics goes to Mass weekly, roughly the same attendance as the Protestant church down the street.

Since Catholics simply don't show up for Mass the way they used to, liturgists are faced with the weekly prospect of working to attract worshipers.

For all concerned, it seems crucial that the liturgy of the Mass be all that it can be. But what makes a good Mass? Should Mass have to compete with Sunday-morning golf, fishing, and trendy brunches? Why don't Catholics flock without question to this most important encounter with their God? Will Mass attendance shrink to a faithful few in near-empty pews?

At a minimum, the drawing power needs to come from within, from the power of the liturgy and the faith of the worshipers.

It's good for Catholics to know more about the Mass. What does the word Mass mean, for instance? Well, Mass comes from missa, Latin for "sent," which is what the bishop would say at the end of the eucharistic liturgy in the early church, as he sent ministers forth with the consecrated bread to the sick and to other churches. "The Eucharist has been sent forth." We're done.

The structure of the Mass is twofold: the Liturgy of the Word, which copies the Jewish synagogue service of the first century, with scripture readings and responses from the people; and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, which is a reenactment of the Last Supper of Jesus Christ.

Father Richard Fragomeni of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago has written Come to the Feast: An Invitation to Eucharistic Transformation (Continuum, 1997). He offers a helpful image when he describes the Eucharist and the Mass as a gift-an extraordinary, overwhelming gift that is God's self.

Early on he offers a crucial insight. "In the presence of any gift we face the urge to take it, not have it given to us. We can do this by taking it for granted; quid pro quo, which we can freely translate as tit for tat. It feels so, well, settled. Gifts are unsettling.

"When we try to take the gift, we destroy its nature. We only can receive this as gift....The real reason we repeat the liturgy each week is to learn to receive."

He then poetically describes a process of surrender to the gift, transformation by the gift, and a "staying awake to the gift that is within us." Catholics who may have become bored with weekly Mass might well recharge their liturgical batteries with Fragomeni's book.

How does one "stay awake to the gift," when some weeks it's a challenge to stay awake at all? Where does one begin to recharge the batteries? The main areas can be counted on one hand: ritual, music, silence, preaching, and atmosphere.
 

1. Ritual
Just what is the purpose of ritual? Week after week, the same motions, similar words, often the same priest. Who is it for? Are all these repeated actions and prayers somehow pleasing to God? Should they engage the worshipers? Is there something wrong with me if I'm bored?

Most liturgical experts are united on the issue: We're not doing all this for God.

Sister Kathleen Hughes, R.S.C.J., professor of liturgy at Catholic Theological Union, says Saint Thomas Aquinas believed ritual is for the worshipers, to bring us to reverence. Also right in the prayers of the Mass, Preface IV for Weekdays puts it very clearly: "You have no need of our praise; yet our desire to thank you is itself your gift. Our prayer of thanksgiving adds nothing to your greatness but makes us grow in your grace, through Jesus Christ Our Lord."

So God really doesn't need us to show up, doesn't need to hear our prayers or praise or songs. If we don't show up, we don't hurt God. Do we hurt ourselves? Well, says Hughes, "Do this in memory of me, is the only thing Jesus ever asked directly of his followers. It rather makes the whole discussion of attendance rules moot."

Kayreen and Joe Burns of Plantation, Florida refer to Belgian theologian Father Edward Schillebeeckx's insight that all sacraments are encounters with Christ. "So it is God who initiates the encounter, not the person who is falling asleep in Mass. The sacrament is a sacrament no matter what deficits there are in the people; otherwise grace would not be a gift from God. It would depend on the integrity of the human person."

Fragomeni supports this view. "It is not true that if I don't feel something, nothing is happening. We want sensational because we can't believe that God can meet us in the ordinary. We're looking for celebrity, the paparazzi, the Dianas, and the Arnold Schwarzeneggers. God meets humans in the ordinary-bread and wine."

Nonetheless, people in the pews tend to argue that ritual should engage the worshipers. A San Juan Capistrano, California couple stresses the need for a community of faith to set the context for a meaningful Mass. "It's not like watching a play, a movie, a sporting event, etc. It's the celebration of the life of faith."

Ann Wiseman, of Powell, Ohio, says rituals are to be expected at Mass. "However, they need to be kept short. I feel they lose too many people when liturgical words and actions are too long." She also thinks you need to "pay attention, concentrate, and participate at Mass, or you might as well stay home."

Well, then, is there something wrong with me if I'm bored?

Gabe Huck, director of Liturgy Training Publications in Chicago, gets almost angry when asked about ritual boredom at Mass. "Boredom means I'm doing something for you. That's not what's going on. I come because I'm obliged to come, not by external rules or commandments, but because I'm a baptized person needed by my community. Even if I don't feel like it-makes no difference."

Bob Hurd, a California hymn writer and liturgist, speaks of the "transcendent God and God as immanent in the community's celebration of the Eucharist. These two modalities of God's presence go hand in hand. God is present in the gathered people as the body of Christ, the local church. God is simultaneously a transcendent mystery of compassion, mercy, and justice, which calls us beyond ourselves." So we help our fellow worshipers worship God just by our presence.

Balance is the key. Hurd says, "Some traditionalists want to throw out the horizontal dimension because it seems too 'us'-centered and irreverent. Some progressives overlook the transcendent aspect and reduce the liturgy to a sort of informal coffeehouse get-together."

Part of the pain and the pleasure of ritual is that it operates almost subconsciously. Denyse Kline, a Catholic youth minister in Falls Church, Virginia, has helped plan liturgies for a local Methodist congregation, a sincere community of "happy Christians." But those liturgies did not replace and even "left me hungry for the familiar ritual of the Mass, a custom that still tells me who I am, where I've been, where I am, and where I'm going." Even though her Catholic community no longer "celebrates" the Mass the way she would like, she finds comfort in the ritual.

Perhaps, like Kline, Catholics need to be more aware of the way rituals organize and support their home lives in order to be more comfortable with rituals in church. The good-bye and good-night kiss, the same birthday song year after year, the family myths and stories retold at nearly every holiday gathering, the formula prayers at the dinner table and at bedtime all provide an invisible bond for family unity and strength. It's different, but not all that different, from the songs, the actions, and the words in church on Sunday.
 

2. Music
Legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus says of the young long-ball hitters in the game, like John Daley and Tiger Woods, "they play a game with which I'm not familiar." Tune in your TV some Sunday night to the double-digit channels and watch the fundamentalist liturgies taking place. When those folks sing, they engage in a liturgical action with which most Catholics are not familiar. It's not Catholic to be loud and emotional in church; Catholics save that for home.

So it can be a bit like tooth-pulling to get Catholics to belt out the praises of the Lord. No matter how many times the folks in the pews hear such nuggets as "they who sing, pray twice," the average Sunday-morning noise from Catholic churches is pretty restrained.

"People don't sing because sometimes they have nothing to sing about," says Fragomeni, "and those who can sing support those who can't." He also says singing is not necessarily better than talking. "Either can be perfunctory, inattentive, nonengaging." But, done well, singing unites people. "It's not even the words or the meaning. It's the unity of people in the act of praise that's instilled by the singing."

Fragomeni says no language or musical form is holy, as such. "What's holy is that holy people sing it-with the explicit purpose of giving thanks and praise to God."

Musician Bob Hurd says the true purpose of music is to serve the ritual so that we do not "merely sing songs here and there in the Mass but rather sing the Mass. The ancient church knew this. For the first seven centuries everything that was publicly vocalized in liturgy-not just songs, but readings and prayers-was sung or chanted. Think of the sound of Martin Luther King's voice when he preached, the musicality of his speech." It's not the same when one reads sermons in a book.

To make all this work well, however, takes a lot of work. It requires a regular, disciplined collaboration and preparation on the part of musicians, the presider, and all other participants in the liturgy. Otherwise the liturgy "limps along with slots for the musicians and slots for the priest and little evocation of the whole assembly's role as co-performer of the liturgy," says Hurd.

Most commentators urge parishes to pay a qualified music director. But they also stress the need for the music director to be pastorally attuned to the culture and needs of the parish. They need to be trained liturgists as well as musicians. "I have seen music directors who do all of the solos and cantoring instead of trying to find other parishioners who would like to contribute their talents," says Ann Wiseman.

Sometimes music directors seem too keen on trying new music. Just when the congregation starts to master a few songs and the volume of the singing begins to show it, everything seems to go back to square one with all new songs. Folks in the pew are better served by a mix of the new with the tried and true.

As with ritual, even folks who say they can't sing usually join in on "Happy Birthday." And, yes, it's probably better to sing badly than not at all.
 

3. Silence
If there's anything that discomforts some Catholics at Mass more than music, it's silence. "Whatsamatter? They lose their place? Forget the words? Let's get moving!"  

Kayreen and Joe Burns say the liturgy was developed as a cyclic process of singing, listening, praying, etc.-all the modes of human interaction. There's a time and place for every element, and some elements will always appeal more to some worshipers than others.

Wiseman suggests five minutes of silence after the people have gathered but before the Mass begins, just to "get into the spirit of the Mass." Fragomeni urges at least two minutes of total silence after Communion, no talking, no meditation song. "We shun silence because it seems like a waste of time."

Hurd speaks eloquently of silence. "Silence at the right places is a sign that we are taking the assembled people seriously as partners in the enactment of the liturgy." The Prayer of the Faithful, for instance, becomes a more obviously communal act if the announcement of each intention is followed by silence before the assembly responds.

"We pray for all who are unemployed..."

(Now a moment of silence as everyone thinks of those they know who are unemployed.)

"For them, we pray to the Lord: Lord, hear our prayer."

But youth minister Kline says silence can be a tough sell to teens. "They love to hear themselves and each other talk and noise is always a part of their life." With them she'll use guided meditation followed by a period of silence. "Even if they fall asleep, they have learned to quiet themselves in the presence of the Lord."

Many worshipers have trouble praying or concentrating during quiet times at Mass and then blame themselves for not being attentive enough. It might be helpful for them to realize that liturgical silence has no set agenda and there's no right or wrong way to be quiet. Others can witness to the reality that only in silence can they feel the presence and love of God. Earthly lovers can easily spend hours together in silence, perhaps a reflection and promise of one's eternal love affair with God.
 

4. Preaching
Everyone gets his or her 15 minutes of fame, promised Andy Warhol. In the homily or sermon the celebrant gets around 15 minutes every week. And, like it or not, right or wrong, for good or ill, that 15 minutes is crucial for many folks. Few people will tolerate week after week of bad preaching, and some Catholics simply stop going to Mass because of bad sermons.

Fragomeni says that's very evangelical Protestant: "As an evangelical you go to church to get something out of the scriptures. Sermons are long and intended to give you something to take home with you. Catholic liturgy is not there to give you something to take home with you as a commodity. Its purpose is to give praise and thanksgiving for the gift of God. The homily is not to instruct or explain scripture or to give people something to think about for the rest of the week."

Liturgist Hurd has a different spin: "The homily is terribly important-the knitting together of the gospel and its biblical context with the here and now of our lives."

Pity the poor homilist. With so many different agendas on the table, how can you please everyone?

There does seem to be wide agreement on an outer limit of 10-12 minutes as maximum length. Hurd quotes a homiletics teacher: "If you can't say it in seven minutes, you won't say it in 15!" Fragomeni harks back to the homily as a rather minor part of the celebration and says the time given to it ought to show that.

But the California couple argues that a five-minute boring, blaming, authoritative homily is too long. And "a half-hour inspired, spiritually nurturing sharing of the Word will not seem long enough."

Hurd's "here and now of our lives" seems to get at the heart of the matter. Homilies often start out fine, with an interesting anecdote or story, but before long the faces of the congregation have retreated to the MEGO zone: my eyes glaze over. Sometimes the speaker is uninspired; sometimes the message is uninspiring.

Quite often the best preachers don't even seem to be preaching. They're just talking, almost person-to-person, and they have an indefinable way of speaking from the heart. The preacher's faith speaks to the faith of the assembly in a way that shows on people's faces and carries them from week to week. They also line up after Mass to give the celebrant feedback: good preaching is a two-way street.

If a homily feeds the faith of the congregation, week in and week out, the church won't be large enough to hold the congregation. Good homilies or sermons will keep folks coming back; bad ones will drive them away.
 

5. Atmosphere
What's the proper balance between a friendly, talkative gathering of folks for the memorial meal and the thoughtful, serious memory of Christ who died on the cross for us? The issue is reverence, liturgical atmosphere, respect for God, for oneself, for one's fellow worshipers.

Some people think jeans and T-shirts don't belong in church. Others are happy to see such folks in church, no matter what they're wearing. Certainly, there is no dress code anymore. And the overall atmosphere seems to vary, parish by parish.

The Burnses say the choice of atmosphere should be left to someone or a group with "extremely good taste. Otherwise people can be disheartened by doing things just for the sake of novelty." But they also argue for flexibility for various groups, be they ethnic, racial, liberal, conservative. "The Mass is not the Mass, but a Mass, and shouldn't be 'said' but 'celebrated.'"

St. Sabina's Parish in Chicago is 90 percent African American. Far from splitting hairs about a 10- or 12-minute sermon, parishioners there spend more than three hours every Sunday in an all-involving liturgy. They actually have an earlier, shorter Mass that lasts only two hours, but the main Sunday liturgy goes from around 11:15 to 2:30.

Starting with spirited songs of praise and thanks, they move to worship of "God's face, not his hands," with dancing and singing and often prostrations. The sermon is actually a form of Bible study; people bring their Bibles and take notes. After the sermon there are often altar calls and healings, then the Offertory, eucharistic prayer, and an all-encompassing kiss of peace throughout the church. After Communion a final song can last as long as the Spirit moves.

Father Michael Pfleger, the pastor who has been presiding over this parish for 10 years now, says the whole idea is to involve people's minds, hearts, and emotions in true worship and praise, with very heavy reliance on truly "catholic" prayer and Bible study.

The California couple says all props should be fair game at eucharistic liturgies "when this is a natural human response, culturally fitting to the celebration coming from the people. Would that we could all stand up and dance as King David did in celebration of God."

A real question for the near future in the United States is the whole question of "melting pot" liturgies. Fifty years ago even small cities had ethnic parishes that served the Irish, the Germans, the Poles, and other ethnic groups, but they all spoke versions of English at least some of the time. Gradually, those ethnic conclaves dispersed, parishes closed down, and the remaining parishes began to try to be all things to all people-in English.

But today some pastors struggle with a reasserted need to simultaneously serve whites, Hispanics, African Americans, Vietnamese, and other groups in various languages. While Fragomeni says the ideal is to celebrate the gift of God in the same language in which people make love, some beleaguered liturgists fantasize about a return to a Latin Mass just to solve the language problem. "Let's get back to where nobody understood it!" In the end, thank God, the common bond that transcends language, music, and preaching is the repeated action that unites all Catholics. In the sharing of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, worshipers partake in the mystery that calls them forth weekly to answer Christ's sole request: "Do this in memory of me."